“Bonjour Saketfet, appremedi?” My host mother says to me in a thick Creole accent as I enter the kitchen that has a cloud of turmeric and curry powder lofting in the air. It’s 6 am and I’ve just come back from a run with some local PCV’s and chopped the morning Coconuts, a very different morning routine than life was 3 weeks ago.
“Umm..” My mind has still not clicked to 100% that my home is now in the Caribbean, and with the sweat covering my body, aches in my muscles, and general daze from the rush of it all, I can barely speak English or Kweyol. It still throws me for a loop in the early AM when I brush off the bugs with my electric fly swatter (closest thing I’ll get to a lightsaber), fill my bucket with water so I can refresh with a cold shower to reset for the day ahead. Yet, this reality and service is plugging along, the strange norms, customs, and realities here are beginning to be second nature. Or everyone is so polite here that my epic embarrassments are of local legend at night, but I can only hope for the latter.
“Sa bien?” She says to me more sternly, still not breaking eye contact from whatever glory she cooks in the iron caste pot that fish, rice, lamb, curry, breadfruit, and deliciousness emanate from. She told me on day one that for part of the day, every day she will only converse with me in the local language of Kweyol, or Creole/Patwa, and has decided that this witching hour should be as early as possible, so good morning indeed.
“Yes. Oh umm…Merci.” I stutter out when my brain kicks on. I remember backpacking through Europe last summer with my buddy Ben, and we’d joke around with locals, “I’m poor, don’t live here, and hey I don’t know the language,” which will further highlight that my game at the bar is similar to that in the state with a 0% batting average. While here it hits me I will be a bit on a budget, but here for the long haul, so I should probably get this language down before a chance encounter turns into a misunderstanding with machete involved.
It has apparently been over two weeks here in St. Lucia, my new home for the next 6 weeks. It is strange how the hue of the sky, smell of the dense forest, and unrelenting sound of the bugs, birds, wild dogs, cows, party goers, and coastal wind hums into some sort of deep white noise. The jungle itself seemed to be mocking me when I first started trying to sleep, right before I’d want to catch any sleep it would say to me, “Oh you didn’t think we could sound worse than a car alarm in Philadelphia at 4 am, or an angry New York driver, try our native birds tantric mating calls, they last 12 hours. How about some loose cows lost in your forest? You haven’t fed the pigs in a few hours, let’s just have them screech for the next hour. Or hey we have these bugs who sound like Nokia cellphones for the next 6 hours, and they will also try and come through your window, thats cool right?” A few nights like that and its hard not to have Hunter S. Thompson-esque dreams.
Yet, the culture shock is starting to wear off, I’m growing used to seeing men walk through the streets with machetes, wandering lost cows amidst cricket match crowds, gangs of dogs barking to proclaim their turf, or the matching perfectly pressed, cleaned, and pristine school outfits of school children as they wait in the early morning. I take 5 steps out of the house and I’m drenched in a coat of sweat, these kids walk up mountains looking like they are about to go to church and are completely moisture free. I’ve come to accept I will be the hairy, sweaty, stocky white guy for the next few weeks, which isn’t much different than my role in the states, except this time I may be a darker hue of red depending on the sun screen situation.
Two weeks in has taken us from rapidly moving from location to location, scrambling for wifi, unpacking, hauling 2 years worth of luggage into and out of buses, to the calm of living with host families, commuting to work within the town, leading to some sort of semblance of routine. No world changes as of yet, still haven’t cured AIDs, beaten the White Walkers, taught the entirety of the children how to read, clean water for all, or brought about Netflix to the island, but we have had some quality time bonding as a class and working within some classrooms. For all I have learned, experienced, and gone through at time’s here I know nothing, much like the illustrious former Night’s Watch Lord Commander Jon Snow. RIP.
When we are lucky enough to be in the classroom the faces of myself and teammates afterwards seem to be full of reassurance, rather than, “How can I look like I’m paying attention during this session, without passing out, sceaming, crying, insanely laughing or all of the above.” The breathe of fresh air that can come with working with these kids, is much better than the heavy breathing of heaving the textbooks, training toolkits, med kits, handouts, and small forest worth of paper on our person at any given time.
In many ways we are going through the same mental processes as children out here, we don’t know the rules, can’t cook for ourselves, need to check in with our parents (or PC) regularly, no TV, video games, internet, and all we want to do is hang out with our friends. The time before our first days in the classes we were filled with panic over lesson plans, confusion if our objectives we met, were SMART, involved the assets of Guided, Shared, Independent reading, mini lessons, SWBAT, etc. The looks went from tense and sweaty, to smiling and sweaty immediately as the bus ride was filled with “That worked so well! Nice job. Did you see how cute they are!” it may be many of our honeymoon periods with working with children within a classroom, but it put a great perspective on the service to come, and what we could make of it in the months and years ahead.
There is still so much “Firsts” ahead of us: finding out our island of service, getting sworn in, our own PC housing, starting our service, helping the organization, embarrassments, white people dance moves, Carnivale , hiking the Pitons, exploring the islands, hurricanes, frustration, Dengue Fever, homesickness, happiness, elation, new host families, weddings, funerals, birthdays, Christmas, Festivus, Chikangunya, strange fruits, spicy food, learning new skills, giant bugs, cricket matches, meeting students, friends, and new family members that can help pull our head out of the tunnel like doldrums of training, and into the fresh aired perspective of how much more is yet to come both big and small.
Even on this end of the spectrum far flung from home, there are still so many firsts for my friends, family, loved ones, and country too. It wasn’t even a week into service that yet another racially fueled national crime came to the forefront sparking from tragedy in Charleston South Carolina. It is amazing how much can come of hate and misunderstanding and made me really question the kind of place I would be leaving behind for two years.
Yet today, to see that universal human rights no matter the gender, and equality prevail with the government backing principles of love rather than derisive hate/ignorance lets me know that the there is plenty of positive progress to be had both here and at home coming our way in big and small ways.